KENTWOOD, Mich. — It's a quiet afternoon at the GR Skate and Event Center on 52nd Street SE. The place hasn't officially opened up for the day, and the rink is clear - except for the presence Henry Pearson.
He takes a few warm up laps around the rink before 1977's "Galaxy" by War starts blasting from the speakers. That's when Pearson really gets going, and before long you can see why people call him "Smooth," even at 80 years old.
"I had a kid that came in here one time. He backed up and said 'Is that him?' And I said 'What are you talking about?' He said 'You're a living legend!' But you know, I don't pay that stuff any attention," a modest Pearson said.
"Smooth" had four siblings growing up. All of them skated. He hit the rink for the first time around 10 years old at Ramona Park in East Grand Rapids.
"They had these skates with wooden wheels with eight ball bearings, and I just thought that was the greatest thing in the world. And from then on, I fell for it," he said.
Pearson has skated across the country and in each state he's made many friends.
"We all have different styles and stuff. We compare styles and everything. I would skate and everything I learned from the other guys I would bring back to Grand Rapids," he said.
"We started the first Black roller skating club in Grand Rapids called Grand Rapids Big Wheels, and we had maybe about 35 people members."
Over the years, many of the people Pearson skated with have passed away.
"I had some beautiful friends that to see him skate - it was like poetry. And they've gone on. Some of them from accidents. Some of them old age got them, and COVID took a host of friends from me."
One friend who has since passed was Noel "Nino" Webley, who worked for the Grand Rapids Press and wanted very badly to do a story on Pearson.
"We grew up together. He went to Catholic Central and I went to Creston, and we became best friends throughout life. I didn't get a chance to let him do it," he said.
Pearson recently returned to the roller rinks after a two year hiatus brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"I kind of stayed away from crowds and stuff like that. Too much TV. Too much couch time. It messed me up and got me out of shape. I was two years away from skating. So I'm trying to get my legs back now," he said.
Getting back to the rink has not been seamless.
"It's lot of exercise at my age. You don't forget how to do it. But there's certain steps and routines that you do on your own that you say 'That muscle's not right yet.' So I'm getting there, but I'm not back yet like I want to be. But I'm gonna keep going as long as the Lord will let me," he said.
"Smooth" is also passing his passion on to the upcoming generations. He has two daughters and two grandchildren who all skate. He says getting to see young people fall in love with the activity is one of his favorite things about it.
"Seeing the youngsters do things that I showed them how to do it, or just seeing them do different stuff. These kids nowadays are unbelievable. That's the new way. It's their time now," he said.
As for other seniors, Pearson is encouraging them to stay active and not let age hinder they want to do with their lives.
"I have a host of doctors and they said, 'Don't stop doing what you were doing.' They said they'd never seen a guy at my age still roller skating. I still hunt and fish," he said.
"I'm on that mission. I'll keep doing them proud, all the old seniors and everything. I'm doing you guys proud. And it's a job, but I love it."
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